‘Touch our idols and the gilt comes off on our hands.’ So wrote Gustave Flaubert. In this mega-memoir (800 pages long), Marlene Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva melts down her mother’s iconic status and pours the hot metal into a more grotesque mould.
Once Riva has finished her work Dietrich looks more like one of the frightening sculptures she complained about on the set of Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. While the world may celebrate this sublime screen goddess, it appears the daughter is left managing a human monster of terrifying will.
The book is not a hatchet job, despite its mercilessly exposing the aristocratic and self-deluding Dietrich. So dominating and unrelenting is Dietrich’s will you wonder in the end what it will take to finish her off. A stake through the heart?
The Great von Sternberg Years
The book can be divided into two parts. The first half concentrates on Dietrich from 1901 to the last of the Joseph von Sternberg movies. The recalled detail is amazing, and frequently beggars belief. How did a young girl remember so much of her mother’s talk, page after page of it? Yet the way it is put down it is entirely convincing.
Marlene Dietrich is also written in a stunning baroque style, like a mix between Proust and Dostoyevsky. The reader is mesmerised at the beautiful descriptions. Dietrich’s make-up, dresses, furs, culinary skills, extensive film critiques, are all described with Riva’s brilliant literary ability.
Was Dietrich Complicit in Her Own Daughter’s Molestation?
Then half way through the biography a fissure occurs. In a somewhat oblique passage, Riva describes being raped by one of her mother’s female lovers. Later in the book Riva conjectures that her mother left her in a vulnerable position, with a predatory lesbian, in the hope that Riva would turn lesbian herself, and that Dietrich would thus never have to compete against a man for her daughter’s affections. Dietrich could have her daughter all to herself. This of course all sounds very far fetched to the lay reader, but Dietrich is just so plain nutty anything is possible.
As a consequence of this early molestation, Riva turned into an alcoholic. Shockingly, she at one point tells one of her mother’s lovers that ‘of course I don’t love her’. (Shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, where Plath’s heroine says the same of her mother.)
The Decline and Fall of Dietrich
Whereas the first half of the biography revels in the great creative partnership between Dietrich and von Sternberg, the second half shows the decline and fall of Dietrich. There are some pages where you hide behind your hands, too afraid to look.
If all that Riva writes of her mother is true, then Riva should be given the military’s highest award for bravery. It would require staggering reserves of patience just to endure one of Dietrich’s dreaded phone calls.
An example of Dietrich at her most trying: for years Riva had been needling her mother to agree to a heart operation to fix up a poor circulation problem. Riva got a doctor to warn Dietrich that she either have the operation, or face the possibility of having her legs amputated. At last Dietrich agreed to the operation. Twenty-four hours later, emerging from the haze of drugs, she starts abusing the hospital staff!
This is an unusual and complex biography. Riva obviously reveres Dietrich’s artistic accomplishments, the great image that Dietrich turned herself into. Riva tells us that so sharp and penetrating were her aesthetic criticisms that she should have been a director herself (remember the famous Hitchcock quip, that Dietrich was a great cameraman, a great lighting man etc.?)
And yet, clearly Marlene Dietrich was a monster, an aristocratic German rife with petty prejudices and vanities.
Any fan of Dietrich must surely read this biography. As mentioned earlier, the detail is utterly fabulous. The lengthy, Proustian paragraphs of Marlene talking, arguing, criticising, describing, holding forth on any number of topics, are riveting and convincing portraits of this extraordinary and appalling woman.